Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On Laissez Faire Parenting

Yesterday, I was speaking with the school social worker about several students that we both "see" on our caseloads. Late in the conversation, she said something very interesting - something that encapsulates what I and many other teachers go through: "Sometimes," she exclaimed, "I feel like I am more invested in some of these kids than their parents are."

How true.

One of the travesties of the American education system is that we often wind up educating the students in spite of parental behavior that serves to undermine what we do. When I misbehaved as a child, my parents either (a) confer with my teacher(s) to reach an suitable consequence to be enforced at school and home; or (b) beat the teacher to the punch and take care of the problem themselves.

Today, we often deal with parents who (a) aren't present enough to hold much authority over their children, (b) are more concerned with being their kids friend and advocate than being a parent, or (c) don't see the value in their child's education and, thus, don't take anything we do seriously.

As an example of the first type of parent, there are simply too many examples. Each time we have "parent/teacher conference night" at the middle-class suburban school where I teach, I am lucky to have five parents show up the entire night. They are always the same faces that showed up the previous time, and generally are parents of the "average" kids, rather than the strugglers who really need the conference. (Does anyone see the correlation? The strugglers have parents who don't show up for conferences while the "average" performers' parents are involved? I wonder if this is causation?)

The second type of parent - the overly ffiendly parent - is also an unfortunately all too common occurence. Sonme parents have lost control of their kids completely, like a parent I dealt with last year who has a son that refuses to attend school and a ninth-grade daughter who has been pregnant twice. She confided in me several times, in tears, that she does not know what to do with her kids, that they do not listen to anything she says, and that she finds it increasinly difficult to try with them. Of course, my question is: what did this parent do when the children were young? I suspect that she put few, if any, demands on them, instilled in them that rules were flexible, and did very little follow through. If the children do not see the parents as an authority, then I doubt authority was established when they were young and malleable.

Some parents also think that the best way to "support" their kids is to advocate for them no matter what. An English teacher recounted for me the following incident: he gave a particular student an "F" on a test because she talked throughout the testing period, ignored frequent warnings that a failure to quiet down would result in a failing grade to no avail. Instead of talking productively with the teacher, the parent came into his office with "guns blazing": "Why the f... did you give my kid a failing grade?! You're going to retract the grade or else!" The teacehr tried to explain his position, but to no avail.

The problem, of course, with this parental approach is twofold: (a) in the parent's zeal to "support" their child, they are inadvertently doing damage by shielding them from normal accountability, and (b) the child learns to disrespect authority and to be adversarial simply by observing the parent's actions.

I have talked with many disgruntled teachers, and what many of them say they dislike the most is dealing with parents. Several have gone so far as to confide that parents are often ruder than students, and I am familiar with more than a few incidents where parents have brought teachers to tears in conferences.

Where did we lose the idea that parents first and foremost job is to be an authority in their child's life? Where did we begin adopting the idea that children do not need consistent rules, discipline, and guidelines? Children don't need more fiends; that's what the playground is for. From my vantage point, what children need the most is parents.


  1. Great post and I completely agree with your closing questions. I'm so with this same notion that I write a website called and run workshops entitled, "Who's in Charge? You or your kids!" I believe the pendulum has swung too far from authoritarian parenting to permissive parenting where being your child's friend seems more important than being their parent. The children so miss out!

  2. Helen,

    I checked out your website, and I think it is much needed. Keep it up.

    Interesting way to say it: the pendullum has swung too far in one direction. What people aren't seeing is that there is room for balance. One can be an authority without being authoritarian, and one can be a friendly parent without being the child's friend.

  3. You sure do take strong stands for a pragmatist. Aren't you the guys that believe that the good is whatever works. Don't tell me you also believe that some things work better than others. Oh, yeah, you guys are also "trial and error" guys, like you can't know in advance, right? ;-)

  4. I am not sure you read the post. It is strange, in fact, that you would NOT measure good parenting by the likely results. (I would love to know what you would measure good parenting by, if not by an eye towards its likley results).

    What I have been saying in my post is taht laissez faire parenting IS NOT working. If it did, I would hve no real problem with it.

    Yet, I am not sure what a better measure of whether a parenting technique is effective than whether it will produce good results. You will doubtless tell me that a better measure is "use of reason' as measured by what Ayn Rand - a non-parent and non-teacher - thought. Good for you.